Ballot Boxed

Forney residents began early voting on Monday after a judge ordered a new election for mayor following a highly charged eight-day trial that saw more than 170 witnesses take the stand. In his order, visiting District Judge Andrew Kupper cited "clear and convincing evidence" that last May's city elections were fixed, capping a six-month struggle for challenger Rick Wilson, who had been pushing for a new contest within days of his suspicious defeat.

On May 7, the day of election for mayor and city council, Darrell Grooms, the folksy, pro-development incumbent, easily defeated Rick Wilson in a race that almost everybody in Forney expected to be far tighter. As a dejected Wilson headed home that night, an election official tipped him that he came across nearly 60 ballots in a row marked for Grooms during early voting. That official also had some befuddling news: Wilson actually garnered more votes than did his opponent on the day of election but managed to win only 27 percent of the early votes that were cast.

John Clement, Wilson's attorney, soon began collecting affidavits from people who swore they checked the challenger's box during early voting. Adding insult to intrigue, during the time Wilson and Clement were digging into what might have happened on the day of the election, the challenger's house was burglarized.

"The only items that were taken were items associated with our election contest, like our laptop computer and other documents and records that had to do with the voter affidavits," Wilson says. "My wife's jewelry, which was lying in plain sight, was not disturbed."

The thief was apprehended that day. Wilson, a self-made millionaire who runs a thriving fabrication business, hired a private security firm to protect him and his family. His brother would have a bomb threat called into his home. Council member Andy Parker, who gave evidence that the election was rigged, later had his home tweaked by a two-bit vandal.

"My mailbox was smashed with a two-liter bottle of Sam's Lemonade," he says. "While I believe it has something to do with the trial, you really can't connect the dots to it."

Still, Parker handled the bottle with rubber gloves and is storing it as evidence in case the authorities want to investigate. Coming next fall on CBS, CSI: Forney.

Also during the trial, an attorney for Mayor Grooms implied that Wilson's private investigators followed the mayor and city secretary. Wilson does not refute that, although he says he never authorized the firm to put the mayor or city secretary under surveillance.

That might not have been a bad idea, though. During a preliminary hearing, a council member testified that at the time of last May's election the mayor was doubling up as the city manager. That put him directly in charge of the city secretary, who oversaw last May's early voting.

She obviously didn't do a good job. As the judge would later cite in his order, the trial exposed a clearly dishonest election that just happened to benefit the incumbent. The early voting ballot box, which contained only a handful of votes for the challenger, was not secured. Then there was the sample of ballots that had different fonts, word arrangements and stamp markings from the rest. You also had the testimony of remarkably prescient (or suspicious) voters, who had marked their ballot for the challenger and memorized their ballot number. When Wilson's lawyer recovered their specific ballots during discovery, they each registered votes for the incumbent. Finally, a greater number of voters testified that they cast ballots for the challenger than the election results showed, an "irreconcilable discrepancy," according to the judge.

The Kaufman County Sheriff's Office is conducting a criminal investigation into what happened last May.